Brendan Nicholson, in The Australian, 29 October 2013, where the title is “Afghans can do the rest.”
“I STILL feel guilty and bitter about the Afghan government forces . . . whom we betrayed and sold down the river when we left Afghanistan, leaving them and their families to the mercy of the victors.” That sentiment, bluntly expressed by an army officer and war hero, has haunted the generals who planned the US-led coalition’s war in Afghanistan, and who are now planning the withdrawal of the bulk of foreign forces, including 1650 Australians. The words are those of Captain Leonid Khabarov of the Soviet army’s elite 56th Guards Independent Airborne Assault Brigade, as recalled in Afghantsy, the masterful book on Russia’s Afghan experience by a former British ambassador to Moscow, Rodric Braithwaite. The Soviets crossed into Afghanistan on Christmas Day in 1979. They withdrew nine years later, leaving behind thousands of dead and a country largely unconquered.
Back in Kabul, the pro-Soviet government of president Mohammad Najibullah survived for three more years — until the Soviet Union collapsed and the flow of money and technical support from Moscow ended. That’s another important lesson noted by the coalition nations, which have committed to supporting Afghanistan for a decade at least, financially and with technical aid. The head of the Australian Defence Force’s Joint Operations Command, Lieutenant General Ash Power, tells The Australian he is confident history will not repeat itself as the coalition forces withdraw. “We’re not pulling them out. That’s the difference, where the Russians left and the money did dry up,” he says.”If the election goes OK next year, and if it’s acceptable to the Afghans and the international community approves the process, the commitments will continue.”ABBOTT: End of Afghan war ‘bitter-sweet’The international community will be involved in a whole new mission in Afghanistan once the International Security Assistance Force operation is over, Power says. “So it is in many aspects very, very different to what happened after the Soviets left.”The final details of that new mission are still being worked out with the Afghan government. The extent of future coalition military operations will depend on a new bilateral security agreement.Australia and the US have indicated they will not leave combat forces in Afghanistan unless they are immune from prosecution under local law.More than 26,500 ADF personnel have served in Afghanistan since 2002. Forty have been killed in action and 261 wounded. At present there are about 1550 Australian soldiers, sailors and air force personnel there.Power says changes in the Afghan military leadership and continued training by coalition instructors have led to a big improvement in the quality of the Afghan National Army. “The ANA certainly outguns, outmanoeuvres, is better led and does not get done by the Taliban,” he says.The Afghan National Police, however, which operates in more remote areas and in much smaller groups, is under greater pressure.”They leave their checkpoints, they survive and then those checkpoints are taken over again when a combined Afghan National Security Forces effort has a go at the insurgency,” Power says.While the quality of the Afghan police has always lagged behind that of the army, they have made progress in Oruzgan province in the past 18 months. Much of that progress is down to controversial police chief Matiullah Khan sending them on training courses and fixing up their logistics.As long as the Afghan security forces are well led and supported by political will, Power believes they will be able to maintain the security gained across many hard years: “There’s no way, if the security forces remain committed to the task, the Taliban are going to be able to march on Kabul, as some have postulated.”He says the Afghan forces are taking more casualties. “They’re the ones in the lead. They are doing the vast majority of the fighting against the insurgency,” Power says. “When they can get themselves into a steady state for a long period where they can rest some of their people and take them out of battle, I think the attrition rates will drop.”Because many Afghan troops are falling victim to the insurgents’ improvised bombs, a significant coalition effort is going into equipping and training the Afghans to deal with these devices. That will reduce casualty rates across time.More than 1000 Australian personnel will be home by Christmas, including nearly all of the special forces soldiers in the Special Operations Task Group. Several hundred will remain in Afghanistan well into next year, including a few special forces instructors.”There is a plan not to stay there forever but to withdraw our numbers out as Afghan capability steps up,” Power says.That plan includes keeping Australian troops, as much as possible, out of the fighting.”Our mission next year is train, advise, assist. There is no direct combat mission,” he says. “Putting people into a dangerous place like Afghanistan is combat. But taking the fight to the enemy is not what we’re going to be doing next year.”With a strong focus on improving the leadership through professional education and training, Australia will leave instructors in an officer academy.Violence levels are about the same as last year, Power says: “It’s just focused on Afghan-on-Afghan. As President (Hamid) Karzai says: ‘You’re fighting your brother now.’ That’s where they’ll be for a while yet until the reconciliation process really kicks in.”There is still considerable ethnic tension in Afghanistan and a lot of tribal violence could continue, but the ANA manages to transcend that tension, Power says. “The army is a combination of all the ethnicities and is a national force. They are proud of their nationality.”Power says while some criminal groups are in cahoots with the Taliban, it’s likely they will fall out as coalition forces step back even further.”It’s still a very, very difficult place, but assuming they have a president who wants to continue to pursue good practices for Afghanistan, I wouldn’t say it’s a rosy future, but it’s certainly one they will be able to shape themselves.”The coalition nations’ sophisticated and extensive electronic intelligence-gathering systems are being replaced by a rapidly growing human intelligence network on the ground, Power says. “They are extensive and impressive,” he says.”They won’t have that technical intelligence capability which the West has brought there through ISAF, but certainly as we’ve stepped back we’ve seen quite a significant increase in types of intelligence they can get themselves without having to rely on ours. They understand their own people better than we ever could and their ‘humint’ is quite phenomenal.”There are still areas where the Taliban, in some villages, probably rules the roost and it would be no surprise if some groups sought an accommodation with the militants, Power says.”You do see a bit of that, but it’s not at an extensive level, which would indicate that the Taliban are coming back and just taking great swaths of terrain.”The most contested areas are those where there are not large numbers of coalition troops.”Part of that is self-preservation, but that’s always been there. You agree with a bloke because he’s got a bigger gun than you one day. The next day you might change sides.”Power says he has come to the view that if the chief in a village did not like the Taliban there, the local people would evict the insurgents.”It is increasingly clear that the vast majority of Afghans don’t want the Taliban back like they were,” he says. “They do not want to see a return to those days. They are getting more and more confident in their own security forces, and the security forces are becoming more and more confident in their own ability to control the security situation.”Power says he believes once the bulk of coalition forces pull out, the north and the west of Afghanistan will still be OK.”There will be more contested areas in the east and the south,” he says. “There are more fence-sitters there and, of course, that’s the region along the border with Pakistan. Today we are seeing insurgents go back into Pakistan as winter sets in.”Power doesn’t think advances made in areas such as education and women’s rights will be reversed. “Even the Taliban has admitted that was a mistake for them. You wouldn’t think they’ll backslide to what it was a decade ago,” he says. “The Afghans like their ability to get their kids to school. They like to have justice provided by the government and not by the Taliban.”Most Afghans can now get to reasonable health services reasonably quickly. Asked if the withdrawal of foreign forces in itself would reduce the level of violence, Power says he is sure it will.”We’ve come up with a rough calculation that if the Afghan forces left and ISAF left Oruzgan, the levels of violence would probably drop by about 50 per cent. Fifty per cent of the violence you see in Oruzgan today is inter-tribal relationships, criminal elements, those sorts of things,” he says.”It’s still a violent society. They problem-solve through the barrel of a gun. But if there is less ISAF there, then part of the rationale for the ideologues, expelling the West, has disappeared.”If there’s fewer people from ISAF to shoot at and to engage in a fight, then you’d reckon there’s going to be a decrease in violence, if that’s their motivation.”If someone who can unify the country is found through the election process, they might think twice about shooting themselves.” – See more at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/afghans-can-do-the-rest/story-e6frg6z6-1226748535052#sthash.2NUmI6R9.dpuf